I’ve been bouncing in my chair like an impatient toddler waiting for the release of Australian author Charlotte McConaghy’s US debut, Migrations (Flatiron, Aug 2020.)  In addition to being an immersive, satisfying read, Migrations offers a case study in setting, pacing, and character development.
Migrations follows the emotional journey of a young woman named Franny who hitches a ride on one of the world’s last fishing vessels to track the final migration of the Arctic tern before the bird goes extinct like most other animals on this future Earth. McConaghy doles out clues to Franny’s past at a brilliant and well-controlled pace that kept me rapt until the last page. She even gifted me with a measure of hope for our shared future on this planet.
Julie Carrick Dalton: Charlotte, welcome to The Writer Unboxed, and congratulations on the launch of Migrations. Your opening lines took my breath away. “The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone.” I found myself weeping at several passages, mourning creatures we have not yet lost. What emotion do you hope to evoke by matter-of-factly dropping readers into such a stark—yet likely—future?
Charlotte McConaghy: I’m so sorry for making you cry! While it wasn’t my intention to depress readers, I do think it’s necessary to confront this potential reality or else we have no chance of avoiding it. It’s too easy to bury our heads in the sand and pretend none of this is happening, and I wanted to maybe startle readers out of this complacency. I think by facing the truth of this environmental crisis, and looking at what it will feel like to lose our animals, we can accept that things need to change, and that we need to be the ones to change them.
JCD: In Migrations, your main character Franny is chasing Arctic terns on their final migration before facing extinction. What about this specific bird captured your imagination?
CM: When I learned that the Arctic tern was the bird with the longest migration of any animal – from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again within a year – I fell in love with it. In their lifespans, they will fly the equivalent distance of to the moon and back three times, and that feat blew me away, especially given that each year the journey for them becomes harder due to human impact on the environment. So the terns became a metaphor for courage, the courage Franny would need to undertake her journey, and the courage we will need in order to face this catastrophe.
JCD: Can you tell me about the research that went into this book?
CM: The research phase for this book was very long. I, of course, chose topics I knew nothing about, just to make things hard for myself, and there were definitely moments where I felt like I’d never know enough to be able to start writing. I researched the terns themselves, the flight paths they take to the Antarctic, and what compels them to fly so far – and also the people who spend their lives tracking these terns, and how they do it. I have a couple of scientist friends who were able to talk me through what it means to be a biologist, and it often means putting in endless hours surveying animals. I researched climate change and discovered that in the last 50 years alone humans have killed over 60% of the world’s wild animals. And that number is growing exponentially. And I spent probably the longest amount of time researching what it’s like to live on a fishing vessel and spend months at sea. I really wanted this aspect of the book to feel authentic, for Franny’s experience to ring true, so I read and watched everything I could, and spent as much time as I could on boats – which was a challenge because I get very seasick! It was an amazing process of learning for me, all this research, but there definitely comes a time when you need to put it all aside and start tapping into the emotional heart of your character – this for me is more important than any research you can do.
JCD: I found unexpected comfort in Franny’s dissociative, single-mindedness in her mission to chase the Arctic terns. She had a goal. She was willing to risk anything to achieve her goal. But like any good story, Migrations is more about Franny’s motivations than her actions. For most of the novel, the reader doesn’t fully understand the reasons behind her obsession. Every time you offered me a clue to her past, I became desperate for more hints, which makes Migrations an incredibly difficult book to put down. Without giving away any spoilers, can you talk about your decision to hold back so much information? And how you decided when and where to throw the reader some breadcrumbs?
CM: I really resist telling readers everything about a character upfront. I get bored easily when I write, so it’s important for me to feel like I’m being challenged by the form. Parsing out the moments of Franny’s backstory and allowing us to experience them with her felt like a much more interesting way of engaging with her as a character, of connecting with her life in an intimate way instead of learning about it all in exposition. And the thing about using a non-linear structure is that it allows you to create tension and mystery, which in turn creates catharsis for a reader when the truth is revealed. It’s an instinctive way of writing for me. I wrote the book from start to finish as you read it, so I really had to feel the ebb and flow of the pacing, feel when it was the right time to go back and give another clue or insight into Franny’s life, and feel when those morsels would help feed the front story.
JCD: You mine some deep, dark emotions in the character of Franny. There were many elements of her past that she could not own or confront throughout most of the novel. Were there parts of her that felt so dark it was difficult to write about them?
CM: Yes, it’s always challenging tapping into that darkness. Trauma is a terrible thing, and while I didn’t want to dwell in it too much, it’s definitely part of what drives Franny and defines how she gets through life. So I had to face it, and those days were hard. I would get a bit depressed sometimes, but I always took heart from the courage Franny has in enduring the hardships of her life, and I would find myself bolstered by that. I think the central theme of the book is loss, but it’s also the healing power of nature, and so I allowed both Franny and myself to find joy in and peace in the natural world, countering any moment of pain with a moment of beauty.
JCD: In several scenes, Franny walks or dives into frigid ocean water. She seems to thrive on the stimulation. Can you tell me about her obsession with the ocean, her near superpower of swimming in icy water while maintaining her mental acuity?
CM: I have always loved the ocean, but I wouldn’t call myself an adrenaline junky, and I think there’s an element of that in the amazing people who go for icy swims all year round. My cousin is one of those people, she swims off the Irish coastline every day regardless of the weather and says it’s such a rejuvenating thing to do, it makes you feel so alive. And that idea became a part of how Franny moves through her life, by really connecting with nature and the wildness at the heart of her. The sea for her is one of the great loves of her life. Maybe it’s the family she never had. She feels more connected to her body, and weightless, and almost able to fly like the birds she loves. So it made sense to me that she would be a daily swimmer. I also like characters who are skilled at something, and for Franny, it’s swimming. Over the course of the book, this skill, or strength, allows her to not only survive, but to help others survive.
JCD: You leave a sliver of hope at the end of Migrations, which, for the most part, is a novel that offers a grim vision of our future. Do you personally hold out much hope? And if so, what does hope look like to you?
CM: I do. I think it’s important that we all do. It’s too easy to feel overwhelmed by the daily disasters and to become apathetic. Which is why I wanted to write a book that ends on a note of hope, because I think hope is what will energize us to change. It looks like all those little moments of kindness and generosity. It looks like taking the time to consider our impact on this world and what we want it to be. It looks like making those decisions, the daily choices that are small things for individuals but add up to big change when we all take part. I really do hope that reading this book is a galvanizing experience, more than anything. We each have so much more power than perhaps we realize.
There’s so much to be fearful about right now, what other books give you hope about the future? Please share in the comments. We could all use some inspiration — and a measure of hope.